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GROUND WORK

LOS ANGELES — Anyone who has written off the Oregon Ducks this season has never had to tackle Royce Freeman.

If 2016 is truly the Year of the Running Back in college football, Oregon will be in good hands with the return of the chiseled 5-foot-11, 230-pound junior. Freeman already started the campaign by deftly stiff-arming questions about lower outside expectations for the program at the recent Pac-12 media day event.

Freeman knows his skills rival those of an impressive peer group, which includes Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, to name three preseason Heisman Trophy candidates.

“Just being in this class and being considered up there with those guys, I try to tell people this class is crazy,” Freeman said. “We’re competing against one another and competing at a high level. I mean, it’s phenomenal.”

The best player on the best team, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, won the Heisman last season after rushing for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns.

A strong case could be made that the runner-up, McCaffrey, was actually the most outstanding player in the country. He broke Barry Sanders’ single-season record with 3,864 all-purpose yards to lead the Cardinal to the Pac-12 championship and a romp over Iowa in the Rose Bowl.

“He’s a great guy, deserving of all that,” Freeman said of the attention McCaffrey drew during their two-day stay in Hollywood. “He’s a hard worker. Sometimes I feel like he’s overlooked with the things he does in the conference. He’s just going to push me. I’ve seen him, and he’s seen me.”

McCaffrey rushed for 147 yards and a touchdown against the Ducks’ charitable defense last November. Freeman’s 105 yards and second-half touchdown contributed to Oregon’s 38-36 victory, which cost Stanford a chance to compete in the College Football Playoff.

The Cardinal, picked to repeat as conference champion in the media poll released Thursday, will visit Autzen Stadium on Nov. 12.

Coming off a 9-4 season, in which Freeman’s productivity was the only constant, Oregon is picked third in the North Division.

Defensive players around the conference understand the Ducks are still dangerous as long as No. 21 is the featured back.

“It’s humbling,” Colorado cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said of trying to defend the Stanford and Oregon running attacks. “You know you have to come that day ready to tackle. Royce Freeman especially. He’s a big guy. He’s not really going to try to dodge you, but he can. He’s going to bring it to you.

“Christian McCaffrey and Royce Freeman are really good players, really good running backs, and I really respect them. Every week there’s a running back from a different team that’s probably going to go off. Because in the Pac-12, everybody is fast, everybody is strong and you have to get yourself mentally ready every week.”

McCaffrey rushed for 2,019 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015. His 276.0 all-purpose yards per game dwarfed the competition; San Jose State’s Tyler Ervin was second nationally with 2,637 all-purpose yards (202.8 per game).

Fournette rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns in only 12 games. His 162.8 yards per game led the nation.

Despite missing one game because of injury, Cook rushed for a Florida State-record 1,691 yards and 19 touchdowns, averaging an astonishing 7.4 yards per carry with no lost fumbles in the regular season.

Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and San Diego State’s Donnell Pumphrey are also capable of carrying their teams to national prominence this fall.

“This class is really special. I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to a lot of them and maintain relationships with guys like Royce,” McCaffrey said. “We’re all rooting for each other at the end of the day. We compete against each other, but it’s football and that’s a bond that we share, especially being a running back.

“I have the utmost respect for everybody, especially in this class, there’s so much talent.”

Oregon experienced a roller-coaster ride at quarterback because of Vernon Adams Jr.’s injuries, and running backs coach Gary Campbell made sure three capable backups were given significant carries during the 2015 season. Freeman still finished his sophomore campaign with 1,836 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns.

The body of work for the soft-spoken Oregon star speaks for itself.

Freeman’s total rushing yards (3,201) and total touchdowns (38) over the last two seasons eclipses the statistics put up by McCaffrey (2,319 yards, 15 touchdowns), Fournette (2,987 yards, 33 touchdowns) and Cook (2,699 yards, 28 touchdowns) in those categories.

Entering his third and possibly final season at Oregon should he decide to leave for the NFL draft, Freeman is 1,881 yards shy of LaMichael James’ Oregon career rushing record.

“Honestly, that’s a record that would mean a lot. That would be crazy,” Freeman said. “I know LaMichael, I talk to him, and he’s all for everything. The caliber of back he was when he was at Oregon and the plays he made, to be there, to be close to this guy, honestly that’s a dream.”

Stanford, LSU, Florida State and some other programs led by elite running backs are considered national title contenders.

Oregon, which will break in a new starting quarterback and is counting on first-time coordinator Brady Hoke to fix a faulty defense, could produce another Heisman winner if Freeman carries the program to an unexpected Pac-12 championship.

“He’s so strong, he’s so big, he’s so fast and explosive. He’ll run right through you or run around you,” Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas said of Freeman. “He’s unpredictable. That’s what make Royce such a good player.”

Oregon running back Royce Freeman (21) carries the ball against Georgia State last fall in Eugene. Freeman is within reach of the Ducks' career rushing record. RYAN KANG/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Freeman